Both encouraged from the racial ages of America, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines and “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay complement one another. “If We Must Die” is based off of the race riots in Harlem. Although A Lesson Before Dying is a fictional novel, “If We Must Die” summarizes the meaning of the novel. Through the use of symbolism, dialect, tone, and theme, the two literary inscriptions become one. The tone of A Lesson Before Dying has an educational feel to it, as well as being gradual and heroic. Grant being at the jail to visit Jefferson presents the feel of wanting to learn, the urge for wanting to prove one’s self to society.
When Jefferson is implied to be a Christ figure, the feeling switches to heroic and exciting. The tone expressed in “If We Must Die,” is also heroic, yet exciting in a different way. Gaines, being an educated African-American man as well, used particular dialect one would not usually see in novels placed in such a racial time. Grant was the educated man of the novel—speaking like a white person, so to speak. Reading through Jefferson’s journal truly grabs the attention of the reader, by the dialect being so clear and spot on of a simple African-American. The dialect in this novel is important, for it lets the reader know what type of person they are reading about – whether it’s the intelligent Grant who does not know how to stay positive, or Miss Emma, who does not know how to control herself as well as the others. The dialect used in “If We Must Die,” is much like Grant, but as a leader instead.
Starting off in A Lesson Before Dying, the story of Jefferson is unfolded. The narrator speaks of the trial and of the prosecutor claiming that Jefferson is a hog, and not a man. In “If We Must Die,” McKay states that, “If we must die—let it not be like hogs,” marking the first connection between the two. Throughout the poem, McKay insists that no man should not die a man, and that no man should be considered a hog. If a man must die, he must die noble and honored. A man must stand up to the men and the monsters that defied his own dignity. Explained in A Lesson Before Dying, Jefferson is deemed as the hog – the hog who is going to die just as that. But Jefferson’s godmother refused to let her little man die as a hog in society’s eyes. The narrator, introduced as an educated African-American named Grant, is expected to change this unnecessary view of Jefferson. Although Jefferson is a stubborn man – as he also took the “hog” remark to heart – he lets Grant give him two things: a radio and a notebook.
Through the use of symbolism, the radio Jefferson receives connects his isolated life to the bustling, outside world; whereas earlier mentioned in the novel, Jefferson completely shut out humanity. Physically, it destroyed the barrier between Jefferson and the community, while also destroying the internal isolation Jefferson locked himself into.
Grant gave Jefferson a notebook to collect his thoughts as well, this informing the reader that Jefferson is nowhere near being a hog and that he is only belittling himself because society sees him as a cowardly colored man. In his notebook, Jefferson proves that he is not what every man thought he was. He collects his high hopes in his notebook, wishing for a better link between black and white. His thoughts were deep, letting the reader know that Jefferson was already a man – just a man waiting to be proven. Jefferson became a very popular man while he was on death row; he became a figure of interest, much like Jesus Christ when he was convicted for the wrong reasons. Grant begins to view Jefferson as Christ, while Gaines subtly hints throughout the book that, that is what he was aiming for.
Throughout this novel, the reader gets flashes of pessimism, education, heroism, anger, justice, etc. Many are the themes of this novel, one most importantly being justice. The reader is grabbed into the thought of saving Jefferson, although this was never achieved. Justice was indeed served, as Jefferson blossomed into a courageous man, even dying as an honored soul; “He was the strongest man in that crowded room, Grant Wiggins…I’m a witness.” Jefferson became the great man Miss Emma intended him to be because of Grant and his power to teach what needed to be taught to him. As if Jefferson died in “If We Must Die,” Jefferson died a noble man. He fought back.
A Lesson Before Dying and “If We Must Die” both complement one another on different scales—symbolism, dialect, tone, and theme—although each are separate in their own way. Each speak of the greatness that comes out of a man when convinced he is good enough no matter what society portrays him. Only the man inside a man matters, and no man should think of himself as a hog. No man shall die a hog; “If we must die—oh, let us die nobly.”